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Women should move beyond mentoring, Walmart International CFO says

Monday, September 26, 2011  
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Women who want to support gender diversity at leadership levels must move beyond mentoring and start sponsoring each other, according to Walmart International CFO Cathy Smith, who shared her career experiences and life lessons at the Network of Executive Women Leadership Summit, Sept. 20 in Orlando.

Women tend to be promoted on their performance, while men are promoted for their potential, because men do a better job of truly sponsoring one another, rather than acting as mentors, who tend to be mere "advice givers,” Smith told more than 700 attendees at the Network’s 10th anniversary Leadership Summit.

"We have a great pipeline of women leaders up to a point, but then women tend to check out,” Smith said in reference to the current state of the cpg/retail industry. "But women now in senior leadership positions are doing a better job of paying it forward,” she said.

Smith, who was interviewed by author and consultant Jan Hill, expressed frustration at the slow progress women have made in the industry. With women occupying only 11 percent of the top leadership positions in business, "we’ve made no progress in a decade and that is just stunning to me,” Smith said. She does, however, expect a change in the status quo. "Gender equity is a business imperative and because there is such a war for talent it will happen.”

Reflects on career

Smith also reflected on her career and efforts to find work/life balance. She long aspired to be CFO of a public company, she said, but declined her first opportunity to join Walmart, choosing to become CFO of Gamestop instead. Six months later, the Walmart opportunity presented itself again and she accepted.

"You don’t get a do over in life very often and I felt like I got a do over,” Smith said.

Still, she had reservations. "Coming to a company with 2.2 million employees worried me,” she related. "[Also] it is tough to move to Northwest Arkansas, because it’s not like moving to New York, Chicago or Dallas.”

She came to Walmart International with no experience in retailing or merchandising and her position called for working with managers from nearly 30 countries, all of whom were male. "Immediately I had no credibility with any of these folks,” Smith said.

On the advice of Walmart International President and CEO Doug McMillon, Smith walked stores with individual country leaders, asking questions that helped build mutual respect.

With considerable travel demands, the mother of two young boys said she relies on her husband to handle most household responsibilities. "He is amazing and I couldn’t do what I do around the world without knowing that he is taking care of things at home,” Smith said.

To help maintain work/life balance, Smith leaves the office by 6 p.m. so that she has dinner with the family each evening before finishing her responsibilities from home. She is up every morning at 4 a.m. to run, no matter where she is in the world.

"That’s how I define balance, but everyone’s definition is different so you have to choose your own balance,” she said. "I know how to have more fun than most and I will try anything once,” Smith said. "If you can name it I’ve probably done it once.”

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